Friday, August 26, 2011

American Translation

I mentioned in the last post that I recently attended a regional conference in another country. I gave one of the plenary presentations, but was the only speaker (plenary or session) to deliver a talk in English.  There were other Americans in attendance, but they were apparently fluent in the local language.  I knew beforehand that this would likely be the case and that many in the audience might not understand English very well.

What should one do in such an instance? Just deliver in English and hope for the best? Read a foreign translation of your talk?

I had briefly considered reading my talk in the native language of the host country, but finally decided that my pronunciation/accent might not be understood. Also, reading a talk is boring, in any language. I decided I had to deliver in English and have a translator.  I've done this before, but it was not a simultaneous translation. Instead, the translator stood beside me and translated after each sentence or two.  Simultaneous translation is much better, but requires more preparation.

I initially relied on the conference organizers, who invited me, to make whatever arrangements might be necessary.  The plan was to have a simultaneous translator and to give out headphones to those who needed them.  However, I learned after arriving at the conference venue that only 100 or so headphones would be rented, but that they were expecting around 600 participants (turns out around 350 or so attended the day of my presentation).

After meeting a few people who spoke so little English that I was forced to use what little I knew of their language to communicate, I realized that this would not be like a typical international conference where the official language is English and most people understand it.  I began to be concerned that some people would not be able to follow my presentation.  So in addition to the translator (more about that later), I made a few adjustments to my Powerpoint presentation.

First of all, I asked a former student from that country to help me translate key phrases on my slides into their language. I know enough of the language to get by, but cannot carry on a conversation or trust myself to do an accurate job of translation. However, knowing some basic vocabulary and conjugation was a big help.  We also made use of online translators to check for alternate definitions and to look up technical words.  This all worked well. Each slide had the title translated.  I also inserted a sentence on key slides that summarized the main point.  Most of my slides were very visual, with photos, graphs, and diagrams--to facilitate understanding without a verbal description.  I also used a lot of animation with arrows or circles to emphasize key aspects of the data (and minimize the need for additional verbiage).

It took us about an hour to go through the presentation and do all the translation. I later added some more slides to the presentation and was able to use the online translator by myself to fill in the text translation.

As I mentioned above, they also hired a simultaneous translator, and the conference hall was set up for this with a booth and microphones.  Prior to leaving home for the meeting, I sent the translator the script of my presentation so she would have plenty of time to do the translation.  She took the script and wrote all of it out in the native language.  The day of my presentation, I met with her to go over the talk and to answer any questions she had about technical terms.  I was very impressed with her professionalism and how much she understood of the science. I answered her questions, and we went over last-minute changes in the order of slides.

Then it was time for my talk.  I hesitated to start off by apologizing for speaking in English, but decided to do so. However, I made a joke about it, which seemed to be appreciated.  During the talk, I made a point to speak slowly and to enunciate my words carefully.   I also paused frequently and looked directly at different sections of the audience (to make eye contact).  I tried to gauge how well people were understanding, but it was impossible (I find this difficult anyway with most audiences, who tend to sit with blank expressions).  Anyway, I proceeded with the expectation that I was being understood.

Apparently, I was.  Afterwards, several people who were not fluent in English came up to tell me that they had no trouble following my talk and really appreciated the efforts I made to make my talk understandable.  They mentioned my speaking slowly and especially the language translation on each slide as being the biggest factors that helped them follow me (they also hinted that this had not been their usual experience with other American and British speakers who tend to talk very rapidly).

I was very pleased with how well it all turned out.  Maybe I'll get confident enough in the future to deliver a talk in another language. For now, though, I see what I should do to help non-English speakers to better follow my presentations.

Photo Credits: Creature from District 9 (TriStar Pictures); NASA/JPL Planetquest; modified still image, unknown photographer


Anonymous said...

May I ask in which country the conference was?

DrDoyenne said...

It was a country in Latin America.